In the midst of the Religion Newswriters Association annual meeting earlier this month, I did a quick, positive review of a New York Times story on a legal clash over Kountze, Texas, high school cheerleaders painting Bible-based messages on football banners.
Since that first story, the same Times writer has written about the East Texas lawsuit at least three more times. Two of the three follow-ups make sense to me. One reported on Texas Gov. Rick Perry weighing in on the case. The other concerned a court ruling.
But the latest story makes me wonder if it’s really that slow of a news month for a Times writer stationed in the Lone Star State. The headline on the 1,200-word report:
In Texas, a Legal Battle Over Biblical Banners
Um, yeah. We got the idea with the first story on the subject more than two weeks earlier.
To be fair, I recognize that reporters do not write their own headlines. So let’s judge the story on its own merits. The angle on this new report is that a Christian superintendent has gone against the predominant feelings in a largely Christian town.
Except that the first story already covered that angle quite adequately.
From the original report:
While testifying on Thursday, Mr. Weldon — he and school board members had been subpoenaed, though Judge Thomas later nullified those subpoenas — said two lawyers he contacted, a district lawyer and a lawyer for the Texas Association of School Boards, advised him to prohibit the students from writing Bible verses. But he said that he supported the cheerleaders and that, as a Christian, he agreed with their religious viewpoints.
“I commend them for what they’re doing,” Mr. Weldon testified.
Mr. Weldon and lawyers representing the district have said that they would like to allow the cheerleaders to put religious messages on the banners, but a declaration from the judge was needed to determine whether the district is required to restrict such banners.
So what’s the new angle? Here’s the lede to the latest report:
KOUNTZE, Tex. — In a barrage of recent e-mails, telephone calls and letters to his office, Kevin Weldon has been called some of the worst things a Christian man in this predominantly Christian town can be called: un-Christian, and even anti-Christian.
“I’ve been in this business a long, long time,” said Mr. Weldon, the superintendent of the 1,300-student school district in Kountze, northeast of Houston. “People that know me know how I am. Even though I got those things, I’m going to be honest with you, this may sound very flippant, but it just went in one ear and out the other.”
Mr. Weldon, 53, is in a position that few superintendents in small-town Texas have found themselves: taking a stand on religious expression that has put him at odds with the majority of his students and his neighbors, not to mention the governor, the attorney general and, some in Kountze believe, his God.
So what actual evidence does the Times provide that Weldon has become persona non grata in this East Texas town?
The paper quotes one politician running for Congress who suggests that the superintendent “can either overturn his ban on religion, or pack his bags.”
Otherwise, there’s this:
Not everyone has been so harsh. Rebekah Richardson, 17, a Kountze High School cheerleader, said: “We understand that he’s in a hard situation.”
Mr. Weldon said that over all, people in Kountze have treated him respectfully. He has attended the football games without incident, watching the Kountze Lions burst through the very banners (“But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” one read) at issue in the lawsuit. “It’s a great small town, and they’re just standing up for what they truly believe in,” he said. “You can’t fault people for that.”
In a heavily wooded part of the state called the Big Thicket, Kountze is an old-fashioned town of 2,100 with a history of religious tolerance. In the early 1990s, residents elected their first black mayor, Charles Bilal, a Muslim. The majority white, Christian voters made Mr. Bilal the first Muslim mayor in the United States. His granddaughter, Nahissaa Bilal, 17, a Christian, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Just curious: Did the Times feel compelled to perpetuate stereotypes even when the facts did not support them? Rather than resort to a cliche lead about the superintendent receiving a “barrage” of complaints, would a more accurate opening have focused on a tolerant town generally respectful of its superintendent despite disagreeing with his action?
The weirdest part of the story: It’s based up high on the superintendent’s own Christianity, yet the Times never feels compelled to explore his faith or beliefs or even his specific denominational affiliation. He’s described only as a “Protestant,” while the offended politician is a “born-again Christian.”
Strange, strange, strange …
Four articles and not one person has asked how the district would handle the situation if any cheerleader or football player objected to the banners. It is easy to envision a scenario where a non-Christian football player refused to run through a banner covered in Scripture. Would he be forced to do so in order to play, even if so doing violated his religious beliefs? How about a cheerleader whose religion forbids her to participate in writing those verses? There’s more to this issue than the cheerleaders’ freedom of speech, when holding religious beliefs that diverge from the majority’s can affect one’s access to public school-sponsored organizations.
The question above should have been posed to the superintendent, the cheerleaders, and the principal. How relevant is the degree of Kountze’s tolerance in the ’90’s to today? The small towns around Austin have changed dramatically in the 15+ years since we arrived as has Austin itself. Has time stopped in Kountze or have attitudes changed as they have elsewhere?